The Socratic compass: Giving students directions not answers

I was recently told that there was no place in the world of the academy, in the University, for the Socratic philosophizing of grey haired intellectuals. There is no room in a curriculum filled and brimming with Bloom learning objectives, knowledge, skills, and abilities to be measured and aligned to courses. Students I am told are open containers where we unscrew the tops of their heads and fill their desiccated sponge brains with the cooling refreshing sustenance of knowledge. Obviously video games, short attention spans, and a failure to read “All I needed to know I learned in kindergarten” never occurred to these needy students.

Though in my case I have a hard time using a model of simply lecture when there is so much to be experienced. Over the last few years I have experimented with lecture/lab, and experiential learning, and a variety of methods or technologies for learning. See, the way it works is I know a lot about a few things, and some about a lot of other things, but I don’t know everything about it all. So, I applied a treatment to my students, looked for changes and found a few things out.


My students are smart.

I am perfectly capable of boring my students to tears

I am perfectly capable of boring myself to tears

I already matriculated from college so I don’t need to teach myself, I am supposed to teach my students.


If only there was a discipline or method where I could energize my class, make things more interesting, and make my students responsible for their own education. What I need is a technique that provides interesting, challenging, and orientation to the knowledge I wish the students to attain. I may want them to learn something, but I want them to be responsible for learning that topic. I call the technique the Socratic compass.

One of the things that becomes obvious is that the Socratic method though only one tool is a very good technique. The answering of a question with a question and creating a path way for the student to puzzle out, logically derive, or otherwise come to a successful conclusion is not for every teacher. Superior domain knowledge helps, but so does a willingness to say… “Hmmm. Good question lets figure it out. What do you think?”

We want to guide students with a series of principles. The how is usually not as important as the why. For my technology students the metaphor they are currently learning will likely be replaced once or twice while they are in college studying. As such I could care less about the specific system call in an operating system. I am more interested in seeing them know why a system call is utilized and what it does to help keep the system working. 

As an example I always have the few students who are talented and intelligent individuals who have spent a long time learning some flavor of Linux. However, they have no idea how to transfer that knowledge to another flavor of Linux, or even worse, utilize that knowledge on a windows machine. A point that can be exploited in their personality is the human characteristic to use derision of the unknown to cover the missing skills in transference of knowledge.  Often a particular feature of these students is to use their favorite version of Linux and not know how it works. In their depth of study they follow what is interesting and fail to drive to depth when something becomes difficult. This is simply human nature to follow the path of least resistance. 

The Socratic Compass gives us a direction. The tools of inquiry and self determined direction to find a path to knowledge bestows tools for advancing knowledge. The mental or cognitive gymnastics students who may be stumped on a problem utilize are part of a tool set for acquiring knowledge. What is of particular use is the “Google” phenomenon. If a student cannot answer a question they google (v) the key words and look for possible answers. Unfortunately that requires critical thinking skills. When dealing with highly advanced operating systems topics on more than one occasion students have blindly followed the direction on some website or web forum only to watch their entire project melt into a puddle of “start over”. Google provides answers but not necessarily the right answers.

I have often said in my classes “Google is your friend. But, like all friends sometimes it stabs you in the back when you least expect it”. A student recently penned a whither criticism of my course stating “I already knew Google was my friend”. Truer words never illuminated the fact the student totally missed the point. A failure on my part. The goal is through the Socratic method to provide a suite of tools in inquiry. With Google the idea is to help the student instantiate within there analysis critical thinking. We can only give the direction and have to be willing to both let the student fail, and accept the resulting cognitive results. With technology usually there may be multiple ways to accomplish something and failure can be spectacular. 

This idea of principles rather than dictates is especially useful in teaching technology. I imagine it could be used anywhere, but within my discipline the path is fairly well defined. 

When teaching information technology most students get a myopic tunnel vision of “technology” and totally miss the “information” portion. This creates a vacuum within the technology where ideas and techniques far beyond technology can fill the void. As an example students often say they want to learn “Cisco” and have no idea about routing, design, users, data, billing, quality, metrics, or any of the other concepts required for a solution. A vendor is not a solution no matter how good the advertisements look. Until recently I have been using ancient routers in the undergraduate classes as a method to force the students to accept some of the other ideas rather than  a couple hundred commands on command line. 

The Socratic way prepares the student to continue learning. In a field where the technology refresh rate is every 18 months, new techniques completely replace old techniques in 3 years, and with things that are common place today having been fiction a decade ago students need to be flexible. Adapt, be flexible, think quickly, learn rapidly, face challenges as rewarding, realize users are the reason you exist, and keep a positive outlook. These are the goals and direction a Socratic compass should point for a student. To often the student is focuses on a dollar sign instead.

Students ask questions for a variety of reasons. They want to confirm a piece of knowledge, they want to create a bond between the instructor and themselves, they want to disrupt the process of dissonance on a concept, they are trying to illuminate an unknown, or they just don’t want to take a quiz. I ask questions of my students to see if they are learning, to examine their cognition of a concept, to derive knowledge for a point, and to examine relevant examples. Only in a few cases do my goals of asking a question, match the goals of as student to ask a question. Our roles are defined by our objectives for the course. One way to deal with this is to think like a student and try and get in front of the student and ask the questions they might ask. I even put it to my students that way, “If I were sitting in your shoes I would ask …..” That drives discussion. Of course there is the recalcitrant class where nobody wants to speak and I using my favorite tool box from “Love and Logic” say .. “I already know all the answers I wrote the exam. So, you can ask you questions (I can ask questions) verbally or I can ask them on a graded quiz. Are there any questions?” 

Some students think that the Socratic Method is about me as a teacher being lazy. These are the same students who complain that homework is “busy work”, that they aren’t really into reading books, that they already know all the materials, and in general the same students who fail the exams. Their maturity level won’t let them accept the fact that learning is work. Though we may give direction, and try and give them even the path and map to the goal, not all will be willing to follow. In a “Love and Logic” way I have to respect their desire to fail and be willing to allow them that.



The Socratic Method:  Teaching by Asking Instead of by Telling  

This was my first introduction to the Socratic Method and why I chose to start using it as much as I can.


Socratic Teaching 

I think this gives some good tips.


Thomas Aquinas College on the Socratic Method 

Aspiring to be better, to bring the teaching of technology to higher levels, and to ascertain where it can go. No place has said better what can be done than here. 





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